Having never read the book, nor seen the Broadway play, I was surprised to discover that one of the two Steven Spielberg movies out this holiday season belongs to the minor subgenre of films like The Yellow Rolls Royce, The Red Violin or 20 Bucks, stories whose organizing narrative principle is to follow around an object (in this case a horse) passing hands through multiple owners.
It would be a safe bet to assume that "War Horse" is by far the largest budgeted film ever made in this fairly obscure genre, and it will be interesting to see if it can overcome the pitfalls of the typically episodic nature of this structure, which can be distancing and feel gimmick-y to the audience (despite some epic battle scenes, it didn't as far as I was concerned).
In this golden age of snark, it is a dangerous gambit to make a film whose title can not only mean:
a. a horse used in war
b. something that has become overly familiar or hackneyed due to much repetition in the standard repertoire.
How much of our current mainstream cinema could fall under that last definition?
You know when you crack open a book and in one sentence are caught up in the spell of an author's voice and grip and eagerly relax as you know you are going to gladly be transported to wherever the storyteller confidently chooses to take you?
"Dr. Rankin was a lage and rawboned man on whom the newest suit at once appeared outdated, like a suit in a photograph of twenty years ago. This was due to the squareness and flatness of his torso, which might have been put together by a manufacturer of packing cases. His face also had a wooden and a roughly constructed look; his hair was wiglike and resentful of the comb. He had those huge and clumsy hands which can be an asset to a doctor in a small upstate town where people still retain a rural relish for paradox, thinking that the more apelike the paw, the more precise it can be in the delicate business of a tonsillectomy."
- De Mortuis
"A rural relish for paradox" - wonderful!
Thanks to Peter Lang for introducing me to the delightful worlds and imagination of John Collier. As a fan of the fantastic and a wanderer amongst the wonderful, I have no idea how this writer and his work stayed off of my radar screen for lo these many years. What were those English teachers at the Latin School of Chicago and Wesleyan University thinking to not include a writer like Collier in their cirriculum?
Thanks to the New York Review of Books publishing imprint for collecting these fanciful stories and bringing them back in print for the 21st century - with a fan's appreciation of an introduction by Ray Bradbury no less!
Apparantly one of Collier's epic but never realized achievements was his screenplay adaptation of Milton's "Paradise Lost" - which he dubbed Cinema of the Mind. It would take more than a "rural relish for paradox" to think that we are currently living in an Age of "cinema of the mind" (many other body parts would more quickly spring to mind), but imagine if some brave filmmaker and adventurous studio would boldly take up Collier's mantle today!
Who would your choice be to play Adam? Eve? Moloch? Satan? Beelzebub?
Great books often don't make great movies.
It's a funny paradox that many filmmakers have found out the hard way over the years. Baz Lurhmann is creating his own new version of The Great Gatsby this Fall, and the bar is set pretty low for him to come up with a more imaginative interpretation than Jack Clayton's inert 1974 attempt, but it will be interesting to see if he can avoid the pitfalls of the highbrow literary adaptation.
The fine subtle quality of the prose, the interior voice of the characters the author so easily conjures, the pressure of competing with the expectations of a fan base of readers who have already made their own film in their mind, can be a deadly cocktail to overcome in the translation from one medium to the other.
So it is fun to dig deep sometimes and find some of the more obscure and disreputable fiction that has been used as the basis for some of the greatest works of cinema.
Few people have heard of writer Harry Grey today, and fewer still have read him. But those who have might have enjoyed the poetry of his hard-bitten noir sensibility and the verisimilitude in his portrayal of growing up gangster on the Lower East Side.
We reached the bottom of the stairway. It was like a play with all the actors converging from different entrances on to the stage. The cashier, an amazed expression on his face, had turned, facing us.
Patsy crowded in from the doorway holding his .45, looking fierce and incredulous at the same time. Behind him was the stocky guy and the two tall men. Back of them pushing into the room were Jake, Pipy and Goo-Goo with rods. All eyes were fixed on us, Maxie and me. Big Max had the Tommy gun in his hands. His .45 in the holster was strapped to his bare chest. His .22 was attached to his right arm, and I crouched with my .45 in my right, my big knife in my left hand.
We were a dirty, sweaty, savage, bizarre-looking pair.
One person who did apparantly read Harry Grey was the brilliant Italian auteur Sergio Leone, and the book later became the basis for his epic crime masterpiece "Once Upon A Time In America". Liberated from any obligation to faithfully serve a work of literature, Leone and his team of screenwriters Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Barnardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli and Franco Ferrini (what a writing room that must have been!) came up with a work of pure cinema in which non-linear time and memory give shape and meaning to the narrative.
Another great piece of source code for a Hollywood classic is Ira Wolfert's huge tome "The Underworld" aka "Tucker's People" which became the basis for Abraham Polonsky's unforgettable "Force of Evil" starring John Garfield. Wolfert was around to share screenplay credit on that film.
All the things a man has to go through to get to live here, thought Leo, the things, the things, thousands and millions and millions of dirty things to hurt people and hurt himself. The street seemed drowned in stone. It looked narrow and drowned, a thing emptied of life and walled with swollen, stone bones. The feeling of costly desolation was heavy in Leo. This costly desolation was splendor, but Leo did not think of it as splendid. Yet he tried to be faithful to the rich. He tried to think of the costly desolation as good for sleep. Only the rich could afford to buy quiet like this in the heart of the city, he told himself. He felt suddenly that only a man who had made himself rich could become barren enough to want and be comfortable in this desolation.
A war correspondent with progressive political views, he was labeled a Communist in that witch-hunting era and denounced by HUAC and others. The book does have quite a scathing view of the jungle ethos of unfettered capitalism and a nice way of equating gangsters and businessmen that is hardly new today but still carried some bite back in 1943 when written.
Sydney Pollack used to talk about the work that he and David Rayfiel did adapting the pulp-y "Six Days of the Condor" into the rich, evocative and thematically sophisticated "Three Days of the Condor".
When you are enjoying a movie that works on its own visual terms and doesn't seem like a filmed recording of a play or a story in another medium, consider the source!
I'm still contemplating the visual and aural symphony that is Terrence Malick's latest entry into his unique and all-too small body of utterly non-conformist films.
Whatever adjustments one has to make to let go of narrative and dramatic expectations and just "experience" his vision, I for one am always happy to surrender to him - profound and pretentious, banal and breathtaking, microscopically emotional and majestically grand- it is all there to love or hate.
I am still pondering the opening line of narration - "There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow." - and not sure yet if it is the key to unlocking the meaning of the film for me. I am drawn to see it again.
But the film, and that line, did inspire me to make a happy connection to a class I took many years ago on Metaphysical poetry, and to find anew these verses from George Herbert.
In Affliction (IV) he pictures humanity as caught in the awkward space between human nature and divine grace.
Broken in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortur’d in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.
My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scatter’d smart,
As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.
All my attendants are at strife,
Quitting their place
Unto my face:
Nothing performs the task of life:
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.
Oh help, my God! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also thee,
Who art my life: dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.
Then shall those powers, which work for grief,
Enter thy pay,
And day by day
Labour thy praise, and my relief;
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.
Herbert's poetry reflects his own experience that human frailty abounds; but he also knew that divine grace abounds all the more.
Malick's film feels like a direct descendant of those poets - the Metaphysical Filmmaker.
That sulfurous smell wafting down Hollywood Boulevard this month is not some municipal gas leak, nor the malodorous consequence of an egg yolk turned bad, but rather another by-product altogether, the hard-boiled blackness of the human hearts on display in this months festival of classic Noir films playing at the Egyptian Theater.
The programmers have served up an eclectic menu of murder and mayhem, including some rarely-screened, never-on-dvd prints of films that won't be found on many film noir best-of lists and barely rate a mention even in Todd McCarthy's seminal "Kings of the B's" guide to cut-rate cinema.
Movies like the Sam Katzman produced and William Castle directed "The Houston Story" and "New Orleans Uncensored" are fun to watch today for their extreme low-budget "ripped from the headlines" social commentary and their on-location photography which afford a documentary pleasure in showing us a world long gone.
In one laugh-out-loud moment, the morality-free chanteuse played by Barbara Hale (soon to become famous as Perry Mason's sidekick Della Street on television) drops a dime on her lover Gene Barry, giving away his location to the two gunmen sent to kill him, while the good girl waitress from the Derrick Diner (this being a Houston scam involving corruption on the oil fields) who actually loves Barry, phones the police, hoping they can get there in time to prevent his murder.
"Thanks, lady, you just saved the state a lot of money" is the lead detective's budget-conscious reply.
And where else will you find dialogue like:
"What's a flunky?
"A hood with a social security number."
Castle is famous for "The TIngler" and other '60's era exploitation movies, but "The Houston Story", while nothing spectacular, was a solid little programmer, almost innocent in its quite modest ambitions and economical style.
Also modest was the motley group of hard-core noir cognoscenti who turned out for the double-feature. "What a collection!" I whispered to my wife as I looked around the theater. "What are you talking about, you're one of them" was her noir-ish wise-crackin' reply.
And she was right!
This is turning in to my week to catch up on some of last year's foreign films.
I have to confess that I sat on the dvd of "Simple Simon", the new Swedish film from director Andreas Ohman, for some time, mistakenly convinced by the title that it was yet another brutally violent genre film ironically wrapping itself up in a nursery-rhyme title, like "Along Came A Spider" or "Kiss The Girls" years ago.
I couldn't have been more off the mark.
In this funny and touching film which was Sweden’s Oscar nomination for 2010, we meet actor Bill Skarsgård – yet another talented member of that Skarsgård acting clan – who plays Simon, an introverted eighteen year old with Aspergers syndrome living with his brother Sam, and, for a while, with his brother’s girlfriend Frida.
Simon’s life centers around order and he tries to control the trio’s every move – from the exact amount of toothpaste squeezed onto the toothbrush, to dinner and shower times. But Frida one day decides she’s had enough and leaves the house; Simon’s reacts within the logic of his own universe and embarks upon a hunt for a new girlfriend for his brother to replace her.
Full of whimsical flourishes like the outer space adventures of the large stove-like kettle that Simon sometimes takes refuge inside; the film also finds a visual correlative for Simon's skewed perception using the same technique of animated line drawings over the live action frames that Mick Jackson employed to such good effect in his own Asperger's story "Temple Grandin" for HBO last year.
Of course Elsa and I are a captive audience for any film dealing with the mystery of children on the autism spectrum, and we laughed as we recognized certain moments of truth in Simon's personality that captured our own experience with Diego sometimes.
But you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, and you certainly don't have to be the parent of a child with special needs to watch and be moved by Ohman's funny, special movie.
"Childhood is like a knife stuck in your throat. Pulling it out is not easy."
So says playwright Wajdi Mouawad in "Scorched", a story of two grown children in search of their own identity and their mother's secret past in the violent upheavals that tore asunder both her personal life and her childhood home of Lebanon.
I haven't seen the play, but it is hard to imagine a more compelling translation from stage to screen than Denis Villeneuve's film adaptation "Incendies", which from its opening mysterious panning shot of a room full of young boys getting their heads shaved by a group of insistent and unsentimental adults, hauntingly and jarringly scored with Radiohead's hypnotic "You and Whose Army?", announces itself as a coup-de-cinema and one of the most remarkable pieces of film direction I have seen in some time.
In the slow-dawning-realization unfolding of the narrative, with a structure that intercuts between the daughter's investigation in present-day southern Lebanon and the mother's harrowing downward journey through the dislocations and violence of 1970's revolutionary events, we only very gradually come to realize the significance of that opening shot, and connect it to the incestuous horror that is at the heart of this darkness.
With such bold and shocking and almost unbelievable events to handle, it is amazing how subtle and visually poetic and engaging is Villeneuve's screen direction. The acting is top notch, and his use of music and graphic chapter headings bold and exciting.
Like Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns", or Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker", two other tough stories of cruel upbringings that in the artistry of their telling became sublime works of art and illumination, "Incendies", in the hands of Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, keeps you on the edge of your seat and glued to the screen, and rewards you for walking a mile in these character's unique shoes.
Check it out. And thanks to Dan Cohen for turning me on to it!
I was excited when the little cardboard box from Amazon came in the mail the other day and I finally got my copy of the new collected film writings of one-time Chicago Reader film critic and now blogger and New York TImes columnist Dave Kehr - "When Movies Mattered".
His great title says it all, and expresses in three simple words that quality of something ineffable lost that many of us have been feeling for a while, and that I have touched on in this blog from time to time.
The cover image of the master at work in an intimate production still from one of his greatest films is exciting and certainly an example of when movies mattered most, but also a little misleading.
Most of the reviews collected here are from the seminal decade of the '70's and spilling into the early 80's when it seemed like on any given week you could crack open the Reader's film guide and catch new releases like Luis Bunuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire" or Wim Wender's "The American Friend" or "Orson Welles' "F is for Fake" or Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz" or Walter Hill's "The Driver" just to name a few of the titles included here that Kehr wrote about and helped us understand and appreciate in a deeper way.
I was personally tickled to see a reprint of Dave's review of the revival premiere of Michael Powell's beautifully perverse "Peeping Tom", which we had programmed when we were operating the Sandburg Theatre back in those halcyon days.
"The film has been the victim of a de facto ban for the last 20 years, and holds no reputation beyond the small circle of hardcore cineastes. This is revivial programming of a much riskier sort than shuffling out the old Marx Brothers - Humphrey Bogart festivals, and I hope Chicago's filmgoers will, for once, honor the Sandburg's initiative with their attendance."
Dave was always a great supporter of the Sandburg and our eclectic mix of programming, and it was just like him to give a shout out to his flock from his bully pulpit at the Reader.
Here's a shout out back - when movies mattered, Dave's writing about movies mattered most to all of us, provoking argument or agreement, but always discussion, and moving us to see things in new ways, and to see films we would not otherwise have ever had the foraging instinct to discover on our own.
His dvd reviews and film appreciation in the TImes and on his website still inform and illuminate, and for all of us with a life-long passion for great movies, still matter.